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Chefs bring elegance, teamwork to Army's largest culinary competition

By C. Todd Lopez

FORT LEE, Va. (March 07, 2012) -- It was cold inside the field house here, like a refrigerator, March 5, as military chefs prepared for another day of competitive cooking at the 37th U.S. Army Culinary Arts Competition.

"Earlier you could see your breath in here," said Pfc. Caleigh Batchelder. "It was so cold. My hands were so cold."

Two men in chef's outfits are in kitchen that is filled with steam. Once holds up a piece of meat.  The other is stirring something in a pan he is holding up. The entire kitchen is made of stainless steel.
Sgt. Thomas John, Fort Sill, Okla., prepares the entrée, a roasted beef tenderloin, during the field competition at the 37th Annual Culinary Arts Competition, Feb. 9 - March 7, 2012, at Fort Lee, Va.

"They're shaking!" said Spc. Nicole Kanyer.

The two were part of a five-person team that competed in the student team skills portion of the competition. One of the biggest challenges for the team: "keeping our stuff hot, really," Batchelder said.


The five student military chefs were part of a larger, 21-person team from Fort Hood, Texas. The junior chefs first displayed their individual cooking skills to judges from the American Culinary Federation -- cutting, chopping, and safe food handling, for instance. Then they came together to prepare a French-themed meal unlikely to ever appear on the menu at a Fort Hood dining facility, including fish, Niçoise salad, and chicken with stuffed beef tongue.

"Everything on the menu was from classical French, from the book Escoffier," said Pfc. Thomas Poux. His portion of the meal included the desert gâteau st-honoré, or "St. Honoré cake," which includes cream puffs and caramelized sugar.

The cooks worked together, four out in front manning the stove, chopping and dicing and plating food for the chefs, and one, Spc. ShaRee Taylor, working backup, "being the eyes and ears for these guys, making sure everything is going right, making sure they are on time and on schedule."

The five earned a silver medal for their effort.

"It was all about team work," said Batchelder. "We worked really hard together and it was pretty much displaying our skills to the best ability that we could." The five students, she said, "that's our team, that's our family."

Three individuals in chef's outfits stand behind a stainless steel table. Each works on a different aspect of food preparation.
Pfc. Sundar Ranabhat, Pfc. Caleigh Batchelder and Spc. ShaRee Taylor, all from Fort Hood, Texas, worked together on the student team competition during the 37th Annual Culinary Arts Competition, Feb. 9 - March 7, 2012, at Fort Lee, Va.


This year, there are about 335 competitors and 22 teams in the competition, and more than 850 separate events to be judged, said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Russell D. Campbell, chief of the Advanced Food Service Training Division at the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence, Fort Lee, Va.

"This year is the largest competition we've had to date," he said, adding that competitors come from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, as well as the Coast Guard. Some $40,000 worth of medals were ordered for the competition.

The competition is the largest culinary competition in North America. The culinary arts competition showcases the talents of military chefs from all branches of the U.S. armed forces, and includes the most junior service members in the culinary arts profession, such as those with less than one year of service to those with more than 20 years of experience.

"The most important thing that happens here, from day one the competitors arrive, is the training aspect," Campbell said. "We have live demos from industry chefs, other college students, or other chefs that have performed well in different events to teach and train and prepare these competitors as they prepare to compete."

The competition involves both team and individual events where competitors earn points for their performance. The event that earns the teams the most points is the team buffet -- a 12-foot by 10-foot table the teams work to compete that features full meals, hors d' oeuvres, finger foods and deserts.

Teams work on the tables for 72 hours or more to complete.

"When the teams put this up there they have to work all night, it's a 24-hour kitchen is what we call it," Campbell said. "When they get up in the morning they work till the next morning when they put this table up and then they get to go sleep to get ready for the next day."

Two men in chef's outfits work together to pour a yellow coulis from a bowl into a squeeze bottle.
Sgt. Isaac Wilson and Spc. Cesar Espino, from Fort Sill, Okla., prepare deserts for the field competition at the 37th Annual Culinary Arts Competition, Feb. 9 - March 7, 2012, at Fort Lee, Va.


Another event, the nutritional hot food challenge team competition involves two chefs who work together to create a nutritionally balanced meal, in 90 minutes, out of ingredients revealed to them only at the start.

"You get a mystery basket and you don't know what's in it until you get there," said Sgt. Maj. David Turcotte. "It's a nutritional challenge, so some of the meats and proteins that are in there, and vegetables were kind of challenging."

For Turcotte and his partner, Master Sgt. Verna Bellamy, both part of the team from Fort Stewart, Ga., the "mystery basket" included quail breast, couscous, "vegetarian protein mix," cactus, papaya and pine nuts.

"The hardest part is you have to sit down and plan your menu," said Bellamy. "And time is the essence. Time is the key to the whole thing."

The two had 90 minutes to compete, with 15 minutes of that at the start to come up with a menu, and Bellamy said she had never cooked with either the cactus or the vegetarian protein powder before, "we don't see that type of food when we work in the dining facility environment."

What did they do with the protein powder?

"We just added a bunch of vegetables to it, some mushrooms and shallots and garlic to try to get it to taste a little better than what it tasted like coming out of the bag," Turcotte said. "Then we stuffed it into a tomato and in a mustard sauce, so the mustard camouflaged it a little more. It's kind of like a hot dog. You put on some onion, some mustard and relish."

A woman in a chef's outfit cuts a string on a chunk of meat.
Sgt. Sarah Deckert prepare food during the 37th Annual Culinary Arts Competition, Feb. 9 - March 7, 2012, at Fort Lee, Va.

"You add a little flavor," Bellamy said.

Both Bellamy and Turcotte have more than 20 years each in the Army, and Turcotte said he's competed before. For Bellamy, though, this is her first time competing. Still, the team won a gold medal for their work.


On the other side of the field house, opposite the row of identical miniature kitchen stations that had been set up for the competition, two make-shift restaurants were ready for the field competition. Here, the kitchens weren't like ones in a restaurant. Instead, they were two Army containerized kitchens -- kitchens in a box. And two teams, one from Fort Polk, La., and one from Fort Sill, Okla., competed to serve dinner to 80 customers each.

Campbell said the teams start cooking at 7:30 a.m., and serve just four hours later. The customers are visitors to the competition who buy the $4.55 tickets that allow them to sit down to a restaurant-style three-course meal that includes either soup or salad, entrée and dessert. What's on the menu is up to the teams.

"It's whatever they want to do they can do, but they have to use the equipment that's on the containerized kitchen," Campbell said

The Fort Polk, La., team decided on "tropic shrimp ceviche" as an appetizer, "seared spicy chicken supreme with Caribbean jerk mango chutney" and "rice primavera" and "broccolli rabi with carrots" for their entrée, and "chocolate drizzled strawberry and pineapple soup" for a dessert.

Sgt. Armando Hernandez led the team he hand-picked for the competition to a bronze medal.

A single tiny lamb chop, glazed, crusted, and on a tiny bed of greens, sits on a long white platter with other food items.
Food prepared during the 37th Annual Culinary Arts Competition, Feb. 9 - March 7, 2012, at Fort Lee, Va.

"I picked the guys with the most experience as far as restaurant-wise," he said. "You come into the military, you work for the Army, you cook for a bunch of people at once. We are working off of what we use in the field and we are going for elegance."

The biggest challenge, Hernandez said, was serving the customers in a timely manner.

"Once everybody comes in they are ready to eat right away," he said. "The way they want us to serve them, we can't cheat and plate everything up at once and push it out. We have to do it as they come in and as they bring us the tickets. So it was keeping everyone under control and communication."

Spc. Juan Dejesus worked on the main entrée, the chicken. The biggest challenge for him was "getting all the cuts and getting everything perfect," he said, as well as dealing with the uniqueness of the containerized kitchen's range.

"The burner -- it's like a jet flame. If you put any kind of pan in there by itself it will go through it," he said. The same fuel used to power Army tactical vehicles, and Air Force fighters -- JP-8, is what powers the burners in the kitchen. "That's the biggest challenge, to control your cooking temperature, the time and the liquid you have to have there."

But working in the kitchen is something Dejesus said he wants to keep doing.

"This is the kind of cooking that I like to do, that I want to do," he said. "I want to be here, because you are always learning. You can never say that you know it all. There is always a new way or a shorter way, or somebody works it different, or playing with the taste."

Since 1973, with the exception of two years during Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, military cooks have come to Fort Lee to participate in the culinary arts competition. Some of those cooks are new, like the ones in the student skills competition, others are well-seasoned. But they all work in teams, and they all learn by being there, Campbell.

"That's where the great balance is. The teams work together. The labs are all open. The teams, you see them intermingling with each other, supporting each other," he said. "And we have chefs go around working with each team on plating, flavor development, presentation -- every day these teams have opportunity to learn and grow."

A tiny four-by-four grid of dots. A tiny representation of the Mandelbrot Set. An oscillator from the Game of Life. A twisty thing. A snowflake.